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The Truth about Empathy

Talking about emotion sets leaders on edge. Just do your job! But…

Daniel Goleman discovered that nearly 90% of the difference between average leaders and star performers in senior leadership roles is attributable to emotional intelligence. (HBR)

Empathy and compassion are confusing. But I’m certain they’re important.

5 components of emotional intelligence:

  1. Self-awareness. Recognize your emotions, as well as their effect on others.
  2. Self-regulation. Think before acting.
  3. Motivation. Pursue goals with energy and persistence.
  4. Empathy. The ability to understand another’s emotional makeup and treat them appropriately.
  5. Social skill. An ability to find common ground and build rapport.

( for a more complete chart.)


Empathy understands and identifies with the emotions of another, even if it doesn’t agree. Compassion is the desire to do something about another’s distress or pain. Perhaps an illustration will help.

During a termination process, empathy identifies with another’s pain. Compassion provides a severance package.

“True compassion means not only feeling another’s pain but also being moved to help relieve it.” Daniel Goleman


It’s useful to see the difference between empathy and compassion. You might not be able to alleviate another’s distress, but you can understand it. helps my understanding. “The opposite of compassion is indifference.”

Get real:

Indifference is easy. Empathy and compassion are messy.

  1. Empathy is exhausting. Compassion fatigue is real.
  2. Empathy is a zero-sum game. When you show empathy to one person, you have less for another.
  3. Empathy can erode ethics. You overlook what you should call-out.

(Empathy – Adam Waytz, associate professor of management and organizations at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.)

Practice empathy and compassion:

  1. Be curious about people. Listen to stories.
  2. Realize the more power you have, the less empathy you tend to show.
  3. Seek clarification on how others feel. “You seem …. Is that right?”

What do you know about compassion and empathy?

How might leaders practice compassion and empathy?

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